David Cox on Thu, 27 Mar 2003 09:13:01 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> "Dark Fibre" review

Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture
by David Cox (c) 2003

Dark Fibre is Geert Lovink's overview of the battles for control of the
Internet and its myriad cultures of activism. The book takes its title from
those bits of fibre optic broadband cabling which have not yet found use,
or for which, use, outside of commercial reality, is considered irrelevant
by the powers that be.

Framing the contests between the local and the global in internet culture,
how these are often played out in the arena of email lists, and the various
anthropological realities of the way online-culture in general operates,
Dark Fibre covers a lot of ground. It builds into its central argument much
of the ad-hoc nature of net exchange of text and ideas. The book reads like
an archive of hundreds of list postings, emails and personal notes and
thoughts. As such it is not exactly a carnival of cyber-celebration, rather
a serious examination on the highs and lows, and peaks and troughs, of the
1990s as the Internet decade, when the first forms of internet culture and
its various manifestations took shape.

Key among these is the still crucial global nettime list, which continues
to be the testing ground for cyber theory and politics globally. There is
Fibreculture which is an Australian variant, and myriad other net lists and
societies whose development and character Lovink examines with the careful
eye of the cyber-anthropologist. This is a cool, distanced, level-headed
appraisal, not a rave party style celebration or heady utopian tract of the
sort once popular at the Internet's first appearance in popular culture by
breathless poster-boys like Douglas Rushkov.

Yet throughout, Lovink, for all his rather sober pragmatism, privileges the
need for us to "reclaim imagination & fantasy" when it comes to building
our societies around the networks and vice versa. His most direct vitriol
is aimed squarely at the failed opportunities for more equitable social
outcomes on display in the 1990s when several key defining factors
dominated the development of global politics. One was the widespread uptake
of the Internet beyond the limits of academe and government, and along with
that, the tragically and in retrospect it would seem, inevitable, corporate
takeover. I join him in lamenting the passing of that delicate twilight
time in 1993 when the Internet still seemed open to possibility and not yet
corrupted by the money grabbers and their apologists in government.

Another failing worthy almost of a memorial of its own was the shift away
from early 1980s style grassroots political action toward the now familiar
social-reformist NGO model of representative political action. Movements
followed increasingly corporate models of governance and in so doing
rendered activism in general co-optable within the broader emerging
globalisation model of international exchange: of ideas, of money, of
people, and politics. Worse, they grew drunk on the new formalised
managerialism such systems of organisation brought with them.

Awash in a sea of representation, networks were thus 'empowered' and
disempowered at the same time. Want to change the world? Fill in this form
and receive our newsletter. Or join our list. It's all in the paperwork and
advocacy, don't you know?

Dark Fibre is very much about the dynamics at play within this new global
culture of network-based social and political organization. In the 1990s
many various models of hacktivism emerged. There was email-list culture, a
range of new digital cities and of course, the PRAVDA of the right wing
'gee-whiz' online culture, Silicon Valley and its corporate ideological
politburo, WIRED magazine. But there was also the types of direct action
exemplified by the online Zapatista movement, the cultural sabotage of
@rtmark, the hacktivism and online organization of the 1999 Seattle victory
over the WTO and its flunkies. There was the amazing MUTE magazine,
MEDIAMATIC, the legend of ETOY and the largely net-based showdown between
burger giant McDonald's and a pair of advocates in London with

The chapter in Dark Fibre "Push Media Critique" frames the decline of WIRED
magazine in terms of the conflict between techno libertarian conservatives
and progressives within the company. Push media (basically net television
and other forms of 'I send, you receive' digital media) are the logical
post-web answer to declining web profits. But when those working for the
company who wanted WIRED to go online as HOTWIRED are told that the list
members are only good enough to be subject to the management's 'bozo
filters' you know something is wrong. This and other schisms form the
anthropological underpinning to the book and its modus operandi. There are
many excellent stories of insider splits within organizations, groups and
so on, all framed within the broader context of global economics and how
nobody online could ignore these broader issues, even if they wanted to.

Lovink, however, unfortunately, (in his zeal to frame WIRED and its
followers as the opposite of the more open model of net culture he
advocates) makes the mistake at times of confusing the worst aspects of
Silicon Valley libertarian economics - the culture of venture capital
'start-ups and dot-comism, with what is best about Northern California. Let
us never forget that post counter-culture utopianism of The Free City
movement, the Diggers, Critical Mass and the resistance history of the Bay
Area. This healthy climate of anti-authoritarianism gave us the personal
computer, Robert Stamwell, the Berkeley freeware movement and SFNet.

The Internet was taken from the clutches of the military by people (many of
them based in California) being playful, experimental, innovative and
political. The do-it-yourself pranksterism of the Bay Area is the spirit
behind the Apple Mac, the Graphical User Interface itself, even. San
Francisco's energetic communalism summed up nicely by the recent anti-war
demonstrations (organised online and by mobile phone) and events like
"Burning Man" is something which California can still teach the rest of the
world, and should. This is a form of US cultural hegemony I personally
fully support and do much to promote. It has yet to exhaust the ways in
which alternatives to banality can be played out in the fields of
technology, network culture and the broader implications of utopian

The strain of Californian slacker utopianism which gave us the first
sensibilities towards free networks is a nice antidote to Euro style
pragmatism and perpetual concern for what is realistic, what is practical
and what 'works'.

The spectacular crash and burn of the dotcom mania which swept the USA in
the mid to late 1990s is described with unrestrained relish by Lovink. He
frames the artificially inflated stock pricing, the folly and wishful
thinking of those supposedly salad days in the broader context of the
routine greed and self-hypnotism which faith in market forces brings with
it. Those duped by the stock market hang themselves nicely with their own
greed in the end, especially when all that is being put on offer is an idea
for something as vaporous as a free email service with advice on shopping.

What is most valuable in the Lovinkian approach to network culture is his
optimistic faith in the inherent importance of real people forming real
networks and then seeking ways to build those with whatever technology is
at hand. People are always more important than the means of communication
which link them. This model of 'the-network-is-only-as-good-as-the-people-
who-form-them' is a pragmatic reality-check on the Rheingoldian idea of the 
community already being there by virtue of simply being connected. This 
comes through in the book in a number of examples.

Lovink also levels criticism of the types of social organizations which
follow in the wake of the NGO and generally bureaucratic models of new
media production. Representative systems of protest and independent media
organizations became more systematised with the rise of the web and the
attempts by governments to contain these trends and have them fit within
already existing models of power relations.

In the early 1990s governments around the western world (including
Australia and its thinly disguised corporate subsidy agenda driven
'Creative Nation' policies) started to smell something they should know
about and hence control. The sudden rise of the 'multimedia' grant system,
and government support and subsidy meant that to get a slice of the
cyber-dollar pie, formerly quite grassroots ad-hoc groups found themselves
buying lots of IKEA furniture, filing cabinets, and getting letterhead
stationary and business cards made up.

The often punishing division of labour behind the creation of multimedia
meant that friends became employees, and everyone felt they had to (to
Quote one of Lovink's most keen insights) 'play office'. This drastically
reduced the potential for Internet culture to genuinely grab the nettle of
possibility in actually affecting the outcomes of otherwise quite
'hackable' social relations and society in general. Most of us who did new
media ten years ago will have a story like this to tell, if not half a
dozen. If you want to defuse a potentially subversive techno activist
movement, flood it with grant money or force artists to become
businesspeople or government 'consultants'. Either way the Man has you.

Lovink's description of what happened to the once incredible 'Digital
Cities Amsterdam' (DDS) project is a case in point. What started out as a
healthily subsidised semi- to non-structured social experiment in
augmenting the city of Amsterdam with an online 'city' on the web, ended up
becoming just another dry Internet Service Provider, whose management
gleefully hulled the enterprise of all its socialist/anarchist guiding

The now familiar ruthless and heartless economic rationalist agenda of
those who one by one it seemed, by 1998, took over networks set up
originally to address broader ideas of social possibility is well
chronicled in Lovink's appraisal of the fate of DDS. We all have our own
stories of early 1990s utopian networks getting shafted by the big end of
town, the bitterness which surrounded the plight of those who did not own
any part of these enterprises but happily worked within them, is always
contrasted strongly with the newly discovered pragmatism who sold out and
pocketed the money.

Read Dark Fibre for a real Internet critic's insider's view of the
realities and possibilities of network culture as bandwidth, now more than
ever, becomes the battleground over which future for democracy will be
fought. As the fires burn in the Middle East and as democracy is being
corrupted everywhere by English speaking evil-doers, those of us who can
make the kilometres of Dark Fibre shine brightly might just be our only

MIT Press
September 2002
ISBN 0-262-12249-9
7 x 9, 394 pp.
$29.95/19.95 (CLOTH)

David Cox is a lecturer and writer based in Brisbane, Australia.

This text will be published in fineArt forum, Vol 17, No 4, April 2003

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